Andre ColemanAbout Andre Coleman

Andre Coleman was born in 1973 in Philadelphia. He was the youngest of seven children, all of whom soon became wards of Baptist Children’s Services and were raised in a group home. After having been born into an environment of poverty and neglect, Andre was forced to deal with the instability of life in foster care.

Andre’s discovery that he could succeed in school gave him an anchor in life. As a leader of his school’s safety patrol, an active participant at the West Philadelphia Community Center, and a member of Drexel University’s “Pre-Bound” program, Andre found that he could leave the bleak realities of his life behind and create a bright future. An unexpected event in his teens threatened to pull Andre off his positive path in life, but after a few stumbles, he regained his footing. Andre attended Penn State University and is a certified emergency medical technician. He works as a corrections officer at Chester County Prison in Pennsylvania, where he is a training officer and a member of the honor guard. He is serving his second term as a member of the board of Baptist Children’s Services, the organization that provided foster care for him and his siblings. Andre and his fiancée live in Wilmington, Delaware.


Andre Coleman Speaks

My first memories are of living in a pink house in southwest Philadelphia. I was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. The oldest was 11, and I was 2. I don’t remember any adults being there. I don’t know how we lived. I don’t know if the older ones went to school. I guess someone must have come by with food for us from time to time. The oldest girls sort of watched over the rest of us.

One day my older brother was sliding down the banister. When I tried to follow him, I fell and broke my leg. At the hospital, the doctors discovered I had hepatitis, an infectious liver disease. They wanted my brothers and sisters tested to see if they had it too, so they called the Department of Human Services and told them to go to the house. DHS sent some people out there, and they saw how we were living. They got quite a shock. From what they tell me, the social workers were coming out of there in tears. The worst thing was, there wasn’t any running water, so we’d been using the bathtub as a toilet. That gives you some idea of what this house was like.

All seven of us were infected with hepatitis. They took us to Philadelphia General Hospital, where we were given a separate wing to keep us away from the rest of the population. We lived there for almost a year. My mother came around, but she said she couldn’t deal with us because she was being evicted. Looking back, I realize she had a major drug problem. I don’t know what she was using then in the ’70s, but she eventually graduated to crack. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1975, her parental rights were terminated, and we were officially made wards of the state.

But we had nowhere to go. At that point we still couldn’t be put into regular foster care with other children because of the hepatitis. That’s when Baptist Children’s Services stepped up and said, “We’ll care for them. We’ll find a house.” One of the nurses who had been caring for us at the hospital, a Miss Ford, offered to go along and serve as housemother. So all seven of us, plus Miss Ford, moved into the house at 3700 Spring Garden Street.

The situation wasn’t exactly ideal. Miss Ford was a God-fearing woman, but she didn’t take no mess. She was verbally and physically abusive. There were times she would line us up in size order, take the biggest spatula she could find, and whip everybody. If you peed your pants, you got whipped. If you didn’t do well in school, you got whipped. My sister Candace told me that one day in school, her teacher had asked the children, “Name one person you would not want to be like and explain why.” There were two brothers living in the house behind ours, and they could see and hear everything that went on. One of them answered, “I wouldn’t want to be Candace because I can hear her being beat every night.”

Fortunately, besides Miss Ford, we had a house- keeper named Miss McCall who was a good, kind woman. Eventually Miss Ford left, and Miss McCall took her place. Things got better then. But maybe it was too late for the older kids, I don’t know. Because they just began disappearing. It began when Tyra was 16 or 17. She went off to school one day and just never came back. After that Rodney followed, just up and left. Then Crystal took off. We found out later they’d gone to live with members of our mother’s family.

I went off to Charles Drew Elementary School. That school was incredible. They had a Black male principal and five or six Black male teachers. They ran a tight ship, man. You knew who was in charge. It was at Charles Drew that I ran into the first person I now think of as a guide in my life. See, it’s my theory that throughout life there are people sent to help you along, to guide you to the next place you’re supposed to be. And my first guide was Frank Witherspoon, the science teacher who was in charge of the school safety patrol. I saw these guys walking around school wearing their orange belts. They were like the police in school, and I thought “Whoa! That is what I want!” I went to Mr. Witherspoon and said, “How can I be a safety?” He laughed and said, “Andre, you aren’t but in fourth grade. You have to wait at least a year.” So I waited, and Mr. Witherspoon kept an eye on me, and next year I became a safety. That was something. We had badges that said “sergeant” and “lieutenant” and even “captain”! I could not have been prouder.

Being on the safety patrol made a huge difference in my life. It kept my behavior circumscribed. I knew that guys on the patrol were supposed to set an example. You couldn’t be failing and be a safety. You couldn’t have bad manners. As the next few years went by, I kept moving up the ranks on the patrol, eventually being named its “Commander in Chief.” Things might not have been the greatest at home, but through his support, Mr. Witherspoon exposed me to a different reality. At school, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a mother or a father. It didn’t matter that sometimes I looked through the phonebook, calling anybody listed as “N. Coleman” to ask “Are you my mom?” Because when I came to school, I was somebody.

I grabbed other opportunities that school provided. In seventh grade I was recruited to be part of a gifted program that was run out of Drexel University. They gave us student IDs, and we had access to the university’s library and gym and other facilities. We actually took some classes there. It was incredible. That ID they gave us—it was like a gold card. With that card, I didn’t have to run the streets. On Saturdays, I could take my card and go play pickup basketball at Drexel all day long. When I had homework to do, I didn’t have to go to the public library, which was a place you could get beat up. Just like Mr. Witherspoon had connected me to a different reality than the one I lived in, that program connected me to another world. Other good things happened. I became active at the West Philadelphia Community Center. A lady there I knew as Miss Barbara nominated me as Young Man of the Year. We went to a banquet on a chartered bus. I wore a suit and tie. It was beautiful.

So I consider Mr. Witherspoon, Miss Barbara, and the people at the Drexel program all guides at that point in my life. And you know what? I think of somebody else who was a guide in a completely different way. Our housemother, Miss McCall, had a sister, Miss Irene. That woman was the meanest, nastiest lady I ever met. She’d slap and beat me for no reason. One time, and I swear this is true, she said, “I’m sorry, Andre; I’m not going to beat you no more.” I said, “But that’s what you said last time.” And that made her so mad she beat me again! Anyway, as I dealt with Miss Irene, I thought, “I don’t care what this lady thinks about me. I’m gonna be better than her. I’m gonna let her behavior motivate me. Right now she’s an adult and I’m a child and I can’t do much. But I’m going to be an adult someday, and we’ll see who comes out ahead.” She wanted to push me down, keep me down. But in my mind I said, “No, ma’am. You have no idea, but you’re doing me a favor. You’re just making me stronger.”

This kind of pattern went on. Positive things kept happening; guides kept appearing in my life. But this is the important thing to remember about guides: They can take you to the next stage in your life. But you have to choose to step on the ship in order to be transported. If you don’t reach out and take that helping hand, it can’t do you any good. A time was coming when I almost forgot that lesson myself.

My home life continued to be up and down. Miss McCall did her best. But things happened. Another group of brothers and sisters moved in with us, and they were terrible, just terrible. They fought each other; they tried to fight us. I thought, “Dang, these people are gonna drag me down. I gotta stay clear of them.” Then, when I was 13, our caseworkers called us together and said, “Your mother has got herself together. She has a house. Do you want to go live with her?”

Over the years we’d seen our mother from time to time. She was in North Philly. During our visits to her, I thought, “This ain’t great. She’s living around some rough people.” So when they asked if we wanted to go live with her, I said, “I’m staying right here, Jack.” But my older brother Edward said, “That’s my mom, and I’m going with her.” And he left. For a couple of weeks things seemed OK. He kept coming to school, he was clean, he was saying, “Oh, it’s great.” Then he stopped coming to school, and then we lost touch with him entirely for three, four years. Eventually we learned that he’d gone home one day and found a padlock on the door. She’d left him, gotten back on drugs and taken off. He was fifteen years old. He managed to follow her to New Jersey, like an abandoned puppy. When Miss McCall heard about this, she said, “Tell Eddie he can always come back to us.” But he was proud and embar- rassed and he wouldn’t come back. He’s been drifting ever since. I work in a prison; he’s been in prison.

I started high school at Creative and Performing Arts, majoring in theater. Then one of those crazy things happened that happen when you’re in the foster system. My caseworker told me, “You’re going to take a trip this weekend. We’re going to Thornbury. It’s another group home, but you’re just going to spend a weekend there now and then.” I packed a few things, and we drove miles through the countryside to this house where she dropped me off. And the weekend passed, and no one came for me, and time went on and on, and finally the caseworker said, “Oh, you’re going to stay here.” And that was it. I never got to say goodbye to my friends, my sisters, Miss McCall.

At Thornbury, the houseparents were a young white couple who didn’t know anything about Black boys. The residents were all Black guys, older than me, who had some serious emotional and psychological issues. A little while after I got there, I saw one of them punch a hole in the stove. He broke his hand; they sent him to the psych ward.

It was a bad, bad time in my life. I rebelled. I was like, “I’ve been trying so hard to stay positive, and I get this?” I was in a crazy environment, and I went crazy too. We basically did whatever we wanted. We threatened the staff. One guy stole the houseparents’ car and wrecked it. We skipped school for weeks at a time. I was miserable and angry. The only bright spot was Rob, a part-time worker at the house. He was a Black guy who played basketball with me and talked with me about books and movies. I didn’t recognize him at the time, but he was another guide. Even at my worst, he saw I had potential and hung in there with me. I came home from school one day and went looking for my man Kevin, the guy in the house I hung with the most. But Kevin was gone. He’d been kicked out of the house and sent to the Youth Emergency Shelter, which I knew was hell on earth. At the shelter, there was no pretense of a home environment; you’d be fighting every day to keep people from stealing your sneakers. I was furious and mouthing off when one of the adults said, “You know who else was supposed to be shipped off to the shelter? You. And if it wasn’t for Rob standing up for you, saying you could be somebody, you’d be gone now too.”

That was instrumental. That blew me away. I never knew what kind of danger I’d been in. And this man who, believe me, I had not been all that nice to, had stood up for me and said, “Andre can make it. Don’t do him like that.” I owe Rob more than I can ever repay. If I’d been sent to that shelter—I don’t even want to think about what I would have become.

Not long after that, the white houseparents left and a Black woman and her adult sons moved in as houseparents. They were Mama Hector and her boys Joe and John, who were around 23, 24 years old. And things began to turn around again. I began looking around me for positive opportunities instead of rebelling against the things I couldn’t change. I got a job at Arby’s, and before long I was an assistant manager with keys to the store. I was making money and going to school and making As and Bs instead of the Cs and Ds I’d been pulling. It was like my mind was waking up. I thought, “I remember this! I remember success! I remember excelling! This is how things are supposed to be!” By the time I graduated high school, I’d turned things around so completely that when my high school created the Frederick Douglass Award, the school’s award to the outstanding African American senior, I was its first recipient. I remember the assistant principal there, Dr. Grassty—another guide—talking to me during my senior year. He knew my situation; he knew things hadn’t always been good for me. He encouraged me to drop by his office any time to talk. I’d go there and complain about stuff going on at the house and he’d say, “Andre, that’s only where you lay your head at night. Just look at it like that. You can come to school and leave all that behind. Here, you can be anything you want to be.”

I’ve thought about Dr. Grassty’s words many times in the years that followed. I’ve thought about how I can pass on what he and all those other guides have taught me. Today I’m a correctional officer at Chester County Prison in Pennsylvania. My early days on the job were rocky. A lot of guys who do that job—they have serious personal issues. They do things on the job that shouldn’t be done. I came in and spoke out against the abusive practices that I saw, and a lot of people turned against me as a snitch. But I defied them with every inch of my being. I decided when I took that job, I was going to dispel every stereotype of the bad correctional officer. And things on the job have gotten better, a whole lot better. A lot more officers are on board about wanting to do things the right way, the decent, humane way. I like to think I’ve had a hand in making that happen.

Part of the reason that I am comfortable working in a prison today is that in a sense, I grew up in a jail. I couldn’t go home, not to the home that was really mine. A lot of decisions were made for me that I didn’t have any input in. In that sense, I can relate to inmates’ situations. I grew up in a situation that was certainly not the one I would have chosen. But I haven’t let that experience determine the man that I’ve become. I try to show by my example that it’s possible to change your environment, rather than let your environment change you.